Holy Ghost People: Film Review

Backwoods cult lends little tension to a dull missing-sister drama.

A woman infiltrates a snake-handling religious group in Mitchell Altieri's would-be thriller.

[Note: The review below describes the version of the film shown at 2013's South By Southwest festival. Producers report that the version opening this week has been greatly revised, with most of the voiceover removed and major edits changing "story, pacing, character arcs," and more.]

A lifeless excursion into culty fundamentalism with storytelling that's about as lazy as it could possibly get, Mitchell Altieri's Holy Ghost People sends two unbelievers into a backwoods, snake-handling religious community in search of a woman who may have been killed there. In lieu of the pulpy thrills it promises but never delivers, the film's best commercial hope is to draw attention from a grisly real world tie-in: Jamie Coots, a Kentucky pastor whose snake-handling exploits were followed in a National Geographic reality series, died last weekend after being bitten during a church service.

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Emma Greenwell plays Charlotte, who rescues drunken Wayne (Brendan McCarthy) after a bar fight and convinces him to take her on a road trip to find her long-missing junkie sister. "Law don't mess with folks up Sugar Mountain," we're told (by a script whose cliches required the input of five writers), so it wouldn't do to call the cops on the hillbilly cultists Charlotte believes captured her sister. Instead, the pair must pretend to be father and daughter and feign interest in the teachings of Brother Billy (Joe Egender) long enough to gather clues.

Billy's flock is the usual band of in-bred dimwits and broken souls we see in these films; Billy, of course, harbors a nasty secret past that makes him perfectly equipped to manipulate them. (And a bedside drawer stocked with anti-venom, lest he himself be tagged by Satan's vipers.)

There's not a single surprise in this missing-person tale, but viewers might have been drawn into its action if the film could manage to go more than a couple of minutes without veering into another long chunk of voiceover from Greenwell. This remarkable, film-long exercise in "tell, don't show" comes courtesy of writer Mary Hamilton, whose listing in the closing credits, separate from the quartet of credited screenwriters, leads one to wonder if she was hired in a last-ditch effort to spell out themes and backstory the movie forgot to reveal through its action. Full of references to the viewer's presumed reactions -- "you might think" such-and-such, "you might laugh" at that -- it fails to guess the most likely truth: You might have changed the channel long before a final scene that rips off Scorsese's version of Cape Fear in a desperate attempt to give you Southern Gothic chills.

Production Companies: Found and Lost Productions, Indie Entertainment, Butcher Brothers
Cast: Emma Greenwell, Brendan McCarthy, Joe Egender, Cameron Richardson
Director: Mitchell Altieri
Screenwriters: Mitchell Altieri, Phil Flores, Kevin Artigue, Joe Egender
Producers: Jeffrey Allard, Phil Flores, Mitchell Altieri, Joe Egender, Kevin Artigue
Executive producers: L.C. Nussbeck
Director of photography: Amanda Treyz
Production designer: Alessandro Marvelli
Music: Kevin Kerrigan
Costume designer: Amanda Riley
Editors: Mitchell Altieri, Brett Solem
Rated R, 91 minutes